Telling Philanthropy’s Story

There are 717 community foundations in the United States making grants of about $4.6 billion in their communities. I know because it’s on the cover of a publication about community foundations.

What I don’t know is why anyone would care.

It’s not just that we should be talking about the impact that we have in our communities, the great work we do and support. It’s not that at all.

It’s literally a question of who cares about community foundations? It takes an unusual amount of self-absorption to get comfortable with the idea that a small set of obscure treasury regulations defines an inherently superior vehicle for philanthropy. In fact, I’m not sure community foundations are inherently better or worse as charitable giving vehicles, or more or less important than other forms of philanthropy to our communities.

And I run one.

Just imagine what the people who don’t run one think.

It’s time for our field to tell its story in an entirely different way. The message from policymakers is loud and clear: The future of philanthropy is on the table in the upcoming budget discussions. New restrictions, even the elimination of the charitable tax deduction, loom as possibilities. And if we’re going to come out of that debate able to fulfill our missions, it is going to mean telling our story differently.

In 2014, we’ll note the centennial of the first community foundation in Cleveland. The 100th anniversary of our existence seems like a good time to declare our maturity and stop talking incessantly about “community foundations.”

In fact, it’s time to shift the conversation forward two steps. We need to stop talking about how community foundations work. We need to skip past the discussion about the work community foundations do.

We need to go right to a message about the critical role that community philanthropy plays in making this country work.

There’s much to disagree with in William Schambra’s recent speech, “Philanthropy’s War on Community,” but his most egregious error was ignoring the presence of community philanthropy altogether. Whatever the track record of foundations like Carnegie and Rockefeller, they hardly constitute a large enough set of foundations to label them “philanthropy.” A true look at the field of philanthropy shows a massive, diverse set of players, many of them focused tightly on our communities.

And yes, community foundations are an important part of that ecosystem. But so are many family foundations, independent foundations, families with commercial donor-advised funds, local companies, giving circles, and any number of other vehicles for giving.

We need to talk about the impact that philanthropy is having in communities in very clear terms. That means celebrating the important work of large, independent foundations that are making a difference in local communities. If we ignore the incredible contributions that the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation makes to helping build new forms of community information sharing, we fail to help the public understand the impact that philanthropy is having where they live.

Talking about community philanthropy means recognizing that family foundations like the William Penn Foundation are providing key investments to make their communities more attractive as places to live, boosting their regional economies, and improving the overall quality of life.

And we should recognize that an increasing number of individual donors—and families—are engaging in community philanthropy that’s having an impact. Some of them may be using commercial donor-advised funds, or just their checkbooks, but the work they do is important and needs to be protected too.

And of course, community foundations also play a key role in their communities. If we don’t tell the story of how the Gulf Coast Community Foundation used grant dollars to keep 184 families in their homes during the economic downturn, we’ve missed an opportunity for people to understand the work we do that really matters to them.

Philanthropy working in communities is one of our nation’s greatest stories.  We should tell that story, in full, and in terms that people care about. And what they care about is the work we do in philanthropy that improves their communities. What they care about is the common mission of improving our communities. What they don’t care about are minor tax regulations and minute structural differences.

Kevin Murphy is president of the Berks County Community Foundation and the Council’s board chair.

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